Leading off strong

By The Beacon | February 29, 2012 9:00pm

Strong talent on offense and defense allows the Pilots to power past foes

(Jennifer Rillamas | The Beacon)

By Kyle Cape-Lindelin, Staff Writer -- capelind13@up.edu

Pilots baseball is off ot a great start, winning five straight games for the second season in a row, including their latest offensive displays against Creighton.

Even with the offense clicking and a five-game streak to start the 2012 season, the Pilots baseball team is not letting success get to its head.

But the real challenge is just around the corner.

"Our success has been great to start the season, but we know we're not turning heads yet," pitcher Chris Johnson, a junior, said. "We have to build on this and start getting national attention. That won't start until we start proving ourselves in the WCC."

The Pilots showed what their bats can do in their homestretch against Creighton as they won 3-2, going into 10 innings Feb. 24. Sophomore All-WCC preseason selection Turner Gill blasted a game-tying homer and reigning WCC Player of the Week Kris Kauppila, a senior, knocked in the game-winning run.

The Pilots, playing on David B. Story Field at Lower Columbia Community College in Longview, Wash. due to rain at UP's Joe Etzel Field, ratcheted up their offense even more in their second game Feb. 26 winning 5-3.

Freshman outfielder Caleb Whalen got the game started for the Pilots in the second inning by knocking out a solo home run, giving UP the spark they would use the whole game. Just two batters later, Kauppila kept the groove going by hitting a two-run home run to put UP up 3-0 to end the second inning. It was the second home run for both players so far this season.

"This start has been awesome for our team," Whalen said. "To see this kind of success so early and to know that I'm playing a huge part in it as a freshman is great."

The Pilots kept the pressure on as Gill reached second base off a single followed by a steal, with junior first baseman Brian Fratalli sending him home with a home run just sneaking past the left field fence to give the Pilots a commanding 5-0 lead that they wouldn't relinquish.

Creighton tried to make it a game in the sixth inning with a score of 5-3 and two runners on base, before hitting into a double play spearheaded by Fratalli to end their chances.

"I'm not counting on our team hitting three home runs every game, but I'll take it when we do," Head Coach Chris Sperry said. "I'm more impressed with how tough our defense was, especially our pitching today."

Freshman pitcher Travis Radke kept Creighton's hitters on edge all game, pitching five scoreless innings, including picking off two base runners, before senior Chad Owens came in to close out the game with a win.

"I think this season could be very special for us because we have some strong talent finally getting to put their skills together as upperclassmen, and our freshman core is some of the best I've seen yet," Sperry said.

This is the second season that the Pilots were overlooked in the WCC rankings, only picked seventh to finish the year. It is also the second straight year the Pilots have gotten out to a fast start, but they will need to continue to win non-conference games before starting the grueling WCC schedule.

The Pilots get a real chance to test themselves as they head south on the road to play Cal State-Bakersfield, March 3 at 6 p.m. and twice more on March 4 and 5 at 1 p.m.

"The more wins we get, the more respect we'll get," Fratalli said. "We just got to keep playing with confidence and not look up to anybody, this road test will give us opportunity to keep this streak up."